Friday 7th December 2012, BFI Southbank
By Alex Davidson
‘I see you, I see you, I recognise your faces, each one is separate in the crowd. […] The only thing that mattered to you was the independence of your country. All those meetings, all those talks, ‘What to do, what will happen, how long, what can we do?’ Yes, I was there and I recorded it for others, for the history, for those who do not know the pain of the exile.”
– Jonas Mekas’ narration, Lost, Lost, Lost.
After reading about the Jonas Mekas celebrations at BFI Southbank and the Serpentine, a friend asked me what a good ‘starting’ film would be for a Mekas novice. It’s a tricky question. His debut, Guns of the Trees (1962), about two couples during the Cold War era, might seem an easy way in, but its straightforward narrative structure is hardly typical of Mekas’ work. The Brig (1964), one of his best known films, is arguably the most accessible – and its damning verdict on the brutality of army prison life couldn’t be more relevant today – but again, its searing political critique isn’t something revisited in his later career.
So it would have to be one of the diary films, films assembled by Mekas plundering his own home movie records of events in his own life – but which? The magnificent Walden (1969) was the first to be made, and features a number of well known counter culture figures, such as Timothy Leary and The Velvet Underground, but a four-hour opus may be too intense an introduction. More to the point, it covers the period of 1964-68, by which time Mekas was well settled in New York. Better to recommend a film he constructed later, in the mid-1970s, but which, perversely, covers an earlier period, from 1949 (the year he arrived in America) to 1963 – Lost, Lost, Lost.
Mekas describes the film as showing “the mood of a Displaced Person who hasn’t yet forgotten the native country but hasn’t gained a new one”. It opens (incongruously, given the tone of much of the rest of the film) with a lovely shot of Mekas and his brother Adolfas smiling and waving at the Bolex camera, presumably on its first ever use. The first two reels plunge the viewer into the immigrant area of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, as bewilderment at the new environment and homesickness set it, with mournful Lithuanian music emphasising what has been lost (music plays a crucial part in the film). Despite scenes of celebration and festivity, the local customs in which the displaced Lithuanians participate only emphasise the disparity between their European homeland and New York. Melancholy lingers throughout the film, as a lost way of life flashes before our eyes – “I am trying to remember,” pines one intertitle.
The film becomes lighter in tone in reels 3 and 4, as the Mekas brothers move from Brooklyn (where Jonas was becoming increasingly frustrated) to Manhattan and become involved with the art scene – we see shots of poets Allen Ginsberg and LeRoi Jones, and other key figures. The spirit of the age is conveyed through scenes of protest – we see demonstrations against war and nuclear armament from various groups. Reel 5 moves to Vermont – by this stage Mekas’ movies have become more sophisticated – as well as intriguing scenes at the Film-Maker’s Cooperative, we hear some of his so-called Rabbit Shit Haikus over the action. Reel 6 opens with a surprising appearance by ukulele player Tiny Tim, but predominantly documents a trip to the Flaherty Film Seminar, an annual forum for independent filmmakers held in Brattleboro, Vermont, to which Mekas and friends (including underground filmmaker Ken Jacobs, whose footage is also used in the sequence), who are there to present prints of Flaming Creatures and Blonde Cobra, are denied entry – despite (or perhaps, because of) this rejection by the international film body, Mekas describes the last reel as the beginning of his discovery of “moments of happiness”.
Diary films can be unwatchably self-indulgent projects, with filmmakers getting lost in their own lives at the expense of entertaining the audience. This is a charge that could never be levelled at Mekas, who transcends the personal to offer a universal experience – everyone has experienced feelings of isolation and loneliness, sentiments poignantly (and beautifully) represented in the film. Furthermore, the film is also a valuable record of a young filmmaker evolving his style – Ed Halter in The Village Voice notes how the early scenes, rich in pathos at the plight of the immigrants, echo the montage prevalent in European art film, yet by the end of the film, by which time Mekas has managed to find acceptance and happiness in his new life, the camerawork becomes freer and wilder, using the strategies of what Mekas himself described as the New American Cinema. A moving, breathtaking and unique piece of filmmaking, Lost Lost Lost is cinema at its most cathartic.